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Tao of Health – Chinese Herbal Medicine Cabinet

Chi Art by Eyton Shalom
In America, when we think headache, we think of aspirin, Tylenol®, or Motrin®; when we think indigestion, we think of Alka-Seltzer®, Mylanta®, or Tums®; and when we think cough, we think of Robitussin®.   Or do we? Picture of Assortment of Medicine

Things have changed. In the global village more and more Americans have abandoned their traditional isolation and traveled to the Far East. More and more Asians have settled in the U.S., especially the West Coast. At the same time, Americans searching for more control over their lives and for natural alternatives to synthetic drugs have opened their eyes to ancient methods of healthcare.

Since approximately 403 B.C., the Chinese have developed their healthcare to include the use of medicinal herbs. Chinese medical doctors prescribed herbal formulas to be boiled at home into strong teas and soups. They decocted herbs in alcohol to make cordials and lotions. And they mixed aromatic herbs with various pastes such as beeswax to be applied as plasters and liniments. Today many Americans have heard of Tiger Balm, a muscle liniment made in Singapore and hawked on television by all-American quarterback Joe Montana. You can even find Tiger Balm at most major supermarkets!

In addition to the above methods of consumption, Chinese doctors and pharmacists learned that it would be easier for busy mothers to give herbs to their children that were formulated into pills or wan. These pills, produced by combining powdered medicinal substances (the Materia Medica includes mineral and animal substances in addition to plant material or herbs) with water, honey, rice powder, or wax as binders, and are known as Zhong Cheng Yao or "Ready-to-be-Taken-Medicine." In America, these prepared herbal pills are commonly referred to as "Patent" medicine. In fact, the majority of prepared formulas are based on well-known classical formulas and can be produced by any manufacturer meeting the strict quality control standards of China’s Drug Control Act, 1985. The history and development of Patent medications parallels that of Chinese herbology itself. By 1155, the first Imperial formulary describing over 700 prepared medicines was published and the first formal pharmacological manufacturing facility established. By 1368 during the Ming dynasty, smaller, privately-owned pharmacies were developed, and through the Qing dynasty the production of medicine in pill form was accelerated. The oldest herbal pharmaceutical manufacturer in China today, Tong Ren Tang, established in 1669, is located in Beijing and has been at the same address since 1702, 74 years before George Washington and Paul Revere!

The great advantage of Chinese herb pills, of course, is their ease of use. Preparing and drinking teas and decoctions is time-consuming and difficult to swallow for those with taste sensitivities. The disadvantage of the prepared herbal pills is that they fail to take advantage of the true skill of the herbal physician. The Patent medications although based on the classical formulas, generally are only the basic formulas that the herbalist would modify to meet the specific needs of an individual patient’s pattern of disharmony at a particular time. Nevertheless, there are certain Patent remedies with a fairly wide range of safe application. Typically in Chinese communities there were certain "home remedies" kept in the medicine cabinets which people knew how to use without necessarily consulting the herbalist. The following discussion introduces some of these commonly used Patent medications.

Common Cold or Flu

In the earliest stage of a cold (first 6 - 12 hours), there are several remedies which if taken early enough actually can assist the body’s resistance to the viral invasion and avert or minimize symptoms. The most frequently used is Yin Chiao Chieh Tu Pien. This formula should be taken at the very first signs of cold or flu: sneezing, slight sore throat, cough, runny nose, chills, and body ache. Avoid the sugar-coated variety of this formula that also contains western pharmaceuticals.

After a cold or flu is in progress, use of this remedy is ill advised. This is a formula to "expel wind-heat from the surface" and after a day or two the "evil pathogen" is no longer at the surface, but has gone deeper. Many students overuse this formula and actually end up weakening their "Spleen/Stomach Qi" that is needed to fight the "wind-evil."

If by day two, one’s symptoms are primarily flu-like — chills, fatigue, sore muscles, mild headache, and sore throat, then Zhong Gong Ling often is used. An American manufactured formula called Isatis Gold, which mixes western and Chinese herbs is excellent if sore throat and swollen glands are a primary symptom. If there is dry cough with thirst, there are numerous herbal cough syrups based on the herbs Loquat Leaf and Frittilariae Bulb mixed with honey. These formulations often are referred to as Pei Pae Mat. If the cold deepens into the lungs and there is copious yellow phlegm, then Pinellia Expectorant Pill (Qing Qi Hua Tan Wan) can be appropriate.


Asians generally are more conscious of their digestion than Americans. Simply drinking a little hot water or tea after meals is an excellent aid to improving digestion. There are many teas in herb stores such as Bojenmi tea and others that promote digestion and assimilation of fats. Good Japanese green tea or twig tea will do the same. Indians are very fond of cardamom and ginger as digestives. Health food stores also have Ayurvedic teas to balance Pitta, Vata, and Kapha; these teas also help digestion when matched to one’s constitution. The brand I have tried, "Maharishi AyurVed," is quite good.

If one should experience sudden indigestion and suspect bad food, then Huo Hsiang Cheng Chi Pien is the formula of choice. Traditionally, it was used for cholera. The smell of Patchouli, one of its constituent herbs, is noticeable. The variety manufactured by Tung Jen Tang in Beijing is the best. This formula also is great for stomach flu, or common colds in the summer with diarrhea.

Curing pills, based on the above classical formula, along with a formula called Er Chen Wan, are essential for the treatment of hangover, motion sickness, and nausea. Curing pills alone, or Bo Chai pills, are useful for non-specific diarrhea and simple indigestion.

If you could not resist that extra pint of Häagen Dazs, and you are so stuffed that you cannot move, then drink some fresh or dry ginger tea and take a handful of Ginseng Stomachic Pill (Jian Pi Wan).

Women’s Health

For pre-menstrual symptoms such as swollen, tender breasts, irritability, cramps, bloating, impaired digestion, poor appetite, and food cravings, the classic formula is Xiao Yao Wan. There are variations of this basic formula depending on the constellation of a woman’s symptoms; therefore, one may need one of the formula variations to properly address the specific symptom pattern.

For feeling weak and exhausted after menstruation (especially if the tongue looks pale), Women’s Precious Pills (Ba Zhen Wan) often are effective. They can be used with chicken soup for post-partum fatigue and dryness as well.

Women suffering from stress-aggravated menopausal and peri-menopausal symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats can, if their digestion is good, try Zhi Bai Di Huang Wan. This clears deficient heat and moistens the Yin. It can be combined with Xiao Yao Wan if there is strong Liver Qi stagnation with blood deficiency.


For seasonal hay-fever with sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, and postnasal drip, Bi Yan Pian is recommended. In acute attacks of repeated sneezing, double the dose given on the bottle.

For sinusitis and sinus headache, Pe Min Kan Wan is very effective, especially in conjunction with acupuncture and dietary therapy.

While the Chinese Patent formulas have been used safely by mothers and grandmothers for generations, there are cautions and contraindications for herbal medicines just as for western pharmaceuticals. The prepared pill formulas, while fairly palatable, nevertheless are medicine. Moreover, the most effective application of herbal remedies is within the context of a skilled, differential diagnosis. For example, in the treatment of colds and flus, it must be considered at the onset whether it is attack of "Wind-Cold" or "Wind-Heat," and whether the patient’s constitution is in excess or deficiency. As the cold or flu progresses, attention must paid to the appearance of "dry evil" or "damp evil" as complicating factors. Finally, be it must be determined when to begin tonifying the patient and assisting their body’s struggle against the pathogenic factor.

In California, those who specialize in Chinese herbal medicine are licensed acupuncturists (L.Ac.) whose training includes three to five years of herbal study and internship before licensure by the state of California.

Have fun experimenting with the Patent medicines, but play it safe too. If your grandmother is not around, consult a licensed professional.

Eyton Shalom M.T.O.M., L.Ac., has been working in the holistic health field since 1973, including two and one-half years teaching and traveling in the Far East. He began his study of Chinese Medicine in 1983 in the Acupuncture department at Colombo South General Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka. An herbal consultant to the California Acupuncture Licensing Exam, Eyton practices Acupuncture, Herbal, and Nutritional Medicine at Oriental Medical Associates just north of downtown San Diego, CA. He is available for consultation at 619-595-0709.

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